Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Blade inflation

With most people's disposable incomes dwindling to the size of a banker's conscience, why does anybody still shave with those overpriced proprietary handle and cartridge razor systems? Refill cartridges for the heavily-marketed multi-bladed razors (like the Mach 3 or Fusion brands Gillette markets to guys, or the Venus Proskin, aimed at the laydeez) are currently selling at somewhere between £1.80 and a tad over £3.30 per unit.* You can easily get a bog-standard Bic or supermarket own-brand disposable razor at a unit price of around 10p.

The manufacturers claim that their fancy, multi-blade cartridges shave you better. I'm sceptical, but even if we allow that there might be some measurable difference in the quality of shave you get with an expensive cartridge, as opposed to some cheap disposable, it sure as hell won't shave you over eighteen times better. Ensuring that your skin and bristles are thoroughly softened by warm water will have far more of an effect on the quality of your shave than using an elaborate multi-blade cartridge system (they call it "wet shaving" for a reason).

Disposables are better value, which ever way you slice it, but it's a bit wasteful, throwing a whole disposable away after a few uses. Even better than disposables are your old-fashioned standard double-edged safety razor blades. It's becoming obvious that the manufacturers, supermarkets and chemists don't like stocking these (too little mark-up, presumably) and it's becoming common to find even large shops failing to stock them. On the supermarket web site I checked, they sold only one variety of double edged-blades (out of 115 products related to the search term 'razor blades'), their own brand, at a unit price that was a few pence higher than the price of an average disposable.

Look on the Internet, though, and generic, double-edged safety razor blades can be had at a unit price that easily matches or beats the cost of a bog-standard supermarket disposable razor. A lot of them seem to be manufactured in places like India and Russia where there must still be plenty of people outside the rising middle class or oligarchy who haven't got the disposable income to waste on overpriced multi-blade razor cartridges.

The business model for shaving cartridges is a bit like the one for ink jet printer cartridges. There's no money in selling a printer / razor handle. The real profits are to be made after you've persuaded the punter to buy your particular brand of printer / shaving system, which works with only with consumables that aren't compatible with any other brand. Once you've locked your customer in, you can charge whatever you think you can get away with for the consumables.

In the case of printers, there have always been competing and incompatible systems, so the manufacturers have had a head start when it comes to tying their customers in. When alternatives have come along, they're able to stay one step ahead of buyers by designing their printers to work badly, or not at all, when a consumer attempts to refill a cartridge or use a third-party cartridge.

Razor manufacturers have had to try harder when it comes to locking customers in. King C. Gillette's safety razor with disposable blades was protected by patent from 1903, when he started to manufacture, until 1921, but by the time the patent had expired, it was easy for other manufacturers to make generic, interchangeable razor blades very cheaply. The manufactures of ink jet cartridges have never had to deal with a similar threat of a common standard that completely destroyed their ability to lock consumers in to their expensive, proprietary consumables.

Wilkinson Sword took the first step away from the generic razor blade in 1970, when it introduced its "bonded shaving system", a single blade embedded in a disposable plastic cartridge, ostensibly to make changing blades easier and to reduce the risk of injury. This solved a problem which probably wasn't much of a problem in the first place - I've been wet shaving with single blades for quite a few years now and I've never come close to injuring myself when changing blades, although I'm as prone as the next person to being clumsy, especially when in a hurry in the early morning. I reckon that by the time I'm doddery enough to be at real risk of a blade-changing-related injury, I'll probably be too shaky to shave myself anyway.

The Gillette company "bettered" the single-blade cartridge by introducing a twin blade cartridge, marketed with the questionable claim that 'It's one blade better than whatever you're using now.' By 1998 Gillette, now confident that a generation of consumers had swallowed the hype about more blades equalling a better shave, introduced the "Mach 3" cartridge with - guess what - three blades. Schick/Wilkinson duly responded to the Mach 3 with its four-bladed Quattro cartridge.

By 2004, The Onion could see where all this marketing-led blade inflation was leading and, sure enough, in 2006, real life caught up with satire when Gillette introduced its five-bladed Fusion cartridge.

All this marketing-led "innovation" has been so profitable that even mighty professional bullshitters look on Gillette's works and despair. Associate professor of marketing and consultant to some of the world's biggest brands, Mark Ritson, was suitably awestruck:
First, drive profitability. Market share might have reached its zenith, but that doesn't mean your margins can't be squeezed. One industry insider recently claimed that, despite a pack of four Fusion razor blades retailing for £9.72, the manufacturing and packaging costs for the product are less than 30p. That's a whopping mark-up of more than 3000%. How about that for a margin?

Second, practise positive cannibalisation. Gillette launched its five-blade Fusion line in 2006 with a 30% price premium over Mach 3, its previous three-blade offering. With an 85% market share, it makes more sense for Gillette to focus its marketing on switching its own customers from Mach 3 to the more profitable Fusion line than trying to win any more competitor share. That is why Gillette is spending millions to compete against itself with ads and online comparisons to convince its Mach 3 consumers that their current razor is simply not good enough and to trade up to Fusion.

Third, drive usage. This has always been the number-one way to fuel profitability. In Gillette's case the company is now investing heavily in an online campaign to encourage consumers to use their Gillette razor downstairs as well as upstairs. Videos with powerful messages, such as 'When there's no underbrush, the tree looks taller', are increasing blade-use on the lower body. One of the joys of an 85% share is that you can run general campaigns to grow total category usage, safe in the knowledge that most of the upturn in sales will benefit your brands.
That's right, guys - shaving your pubes in the hope that your penis will look bigger is what all the cool kids are doing (a marketing professional told me, so it must be true). Even The Onion didn't see that one coming.

The wacky "innovations" of the modern Proctor and Gamble-owned Gillette company are a world away from the real innovation of King C. Gillette,** whose invention was undeniably better than the old cut throat razors (there's a subtle clue as to why they sucked, right there in the name) and rival safety blades that you had to spend ages sharpening, with mixed results.The safety razor he pioneered works well, it's cheap to use and generates a tiny amount of recyclable waste. Its replacement by cartridges has allowed corporations to profiteer hugely whilst providing no - or at best, marginal - benefits to the end user.

Today's top tip for life in an austerity-ridden world - ditch the overpriced shaving cartridges, get yourself a perfectly adequate double-edged razor in the fifteen to twenty five quid bracket (more expensive models are available, but if you spend much more, you're just showing off) and a few blades for pennies each.***

What marketing professionals say in public is that modern consumers are way too savvy and sophisticated to be taken in by the first stupid bit of marketing they see, polished up with he odd celebrity endorsement. Looking at the way shaving products are marketed, I suspect that what they think in private is 'there's a sucker born every minute.'

*as advertised on the web site of a major supermarket.

**There's a huge a divergence of values, too, at least according to Wikipedia, where Gillette is described as a 'Utopian socialist', a refreshing contrast with the predatory profiteers currently trading under his name. Mind you, some aspects of his Utopian socialism sounded pretty wacky, too - he apparently believed that everyone in the US should live in a giant city called Metropolis, powered by Niagara Falls. OK, the concept is pretty out there, but when a guy's made one really brilliant idea work, why begrudge him his bit of blue-skies thinking?

***Or buy the slightly more expensive premium Merkur brand blades, if you really must.